Jehovah's Bystanders

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Quick, what is the largest religious denomination in America? Chances are many of you will say the Catholics. But being of that communion, I know the Catholic Church has maintained through the centuries that she is not a denomination of a larger Christian Church, encompassing the Church of Rome, the Church of England, the Orthodox churches and the various Protestant sects. The Catholic Church is "the" church, with the Church Militant the visible body of Christ on earth and the pope, or Vicar of Christ, as its visible head. However loathsome the comparison may be in some ways, the Church’s relationship to the "separated brethren" may be thought of as similar to the relationship of the People’s Republic of China to Taiwan. Beijing insists there is but one China of which Taiwan is a part.

But even if we were to consider, for the sake of discussion, the Catholic Church as a denomination, it would still not be the biggest. The reason has to do with something I observed Good Friday morning while gazing upon one of the Stations of the Cross. It was the Fifth Station, the one depicting the scene in which, "Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus Carry the Cross."

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all tell of Simon of Cyrene, who comes onto the scene by chance and is compelled to bear the cross. But taken together their accounts leave it unclear whether Simon was forced to carry the cross with or for Jesus. In other words, was Simon bearing the cross alone, at least for part of the trek to Calvary? Or were he and Jesus carrying it together?

I believe every artist’s rendition I have seen shows it as a joint effort of Jesus and Simon. Most depict Simon carrying the cross behind Jesus, as indicated in Saint Luke’s gospel: "And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenean, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus." (Luke 23:26)

But the miniature sculpture I was looking at this Good Friday morning had Simon near the front of the cross, with Jesus behind him. One other feature I noticed: Christ’s hands were presented as tied together around the beam he was carrying. In that scene he could not, humanly speaking, let go of the cross.

Now, Simon is an interesting character in a number of ways. Clearly the fact that three of the four Gospel writers mention him by name and the name of his town, while two of them also tell us the name of his children, indicates that his cameo role in this scene is considered significant. It is also worth noting that Simon did not help Jesus voluntarily. The Roman soldiers "laid hold" of him or "compelled" him to carry the cross. One would think that had they not done so, Simon would have been content to continue on his way. Or he might have stopped for a while and simply viewed the spectacle, as so many others were doing.

Luke tells us that as Jesus started off with the cross "there followed after him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him." (v. 27). The evangelist appears to be drawing a distinction between the "great company of people" and the women who were "wailing and lamenting" the cruel fate that had befallen the rabbi from Galilee. The "great company" likely included many passersby and curiosity seekers who came along to watch the spectacle, as the Roman rulers must have wished. Why have a public execution after all, if not to make a spectacle of the executed?

By that time Roman had occupied Palestine for roughly a century. Those who dared oppose, or were even suspected of opposing, the rule of the Romans faced a terrible fate. A few decades before the crucifixion of Jesus, some two thousand Jews were executed in a single day. It is not surprising, then, that there is no record of anyone trying to stop the cruel and inhumane spectacle of a badly beaten Jesus forced to carry his cross on the way to his execution.

One might ask how we compare, we citizens of another empire, which chooses not to call itself that. We have not been subjected — not yet, anyway — to the kind of tyranny that was the everyday fare of the ancient world. In the land of the free, in 21st Century America, Jesus would have been read his "Miranda rights," been provided with a lawyer right away, given a fair trial and had recourse to legal appeals. Unless of course, some modern Pilate designated him an "enemy combatant" and decided to hold him without charges and without trial for years, without any widespread protest by his countrymen.

Then, perhaps, after years of solitary confinement, a trial could be staged in which he could be convicted, based, perhaps, on fingerprints found on an application form for a training camp run by an organization lately designated as an enemy of our country. This is all speculation, of course. There’s not telling how the trial of Jesus might have been handled in our enlightened age.

But I can’t help wondering how we, the bystanders, the "great company of people" might have reacted. We need not have seen it in person, of course. We might have caught reports of it on the evening news or followed sporadic accounts of it in our daily newspapers. A few hardy souls might have protested, but chances are most Americans would not have lost any sleep over it. It seems safe to say that not many would be moved to write a letter to the editor about it. Relatively few people ever speak out publicly. Of those who do, many hold their fire for a truly significant occurrence, as when the local newspaper, for whatever reason, suspends publication of their favorite comic strip for a certain period of time.

But the vast majority of us do not speak up — not when our nation is prosecuting a war of aggression in a far-off land. Not when our constitutional rights are increasingly violated by what is arguably the most lawless administration in our nation’s history. Not even when, under a judge-made constitutional "right," babies in, or even partially outside, the womb are killed in the United States at the rate of 4,000 a day. Nor even when the House of Representatives in my state (New Hampshire) votes down a bill to require the notification of the child’s parents before an abortion may be performed on a minor. None of these things have produced the flurry of letters to the editor recently published in my local paper over the temporary suspension of publication of a certain comic strip. In our day, and in my state, Patrick Henry’s cry of "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been supplanted by, "Give us Dilbert or we’ll raise hell — and squawk a lot, too."

But at least those in the loyal order of the Defenders of Dilbert speak up about something. Most people never do. Which brings me back to the question of which is the largest denomination in America. For me, comedian Flip Wilson answered that question more than 30 years ago. In one of his skits, he identified himself as a "Jehovah’s Bystander." What’s that, you ask?

"We’s like the Witnesses," he explained, "only we don’t want to get involved." Sounds like a supermajority to me.

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.

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